The ‘total approach’ to learning French – the Institute de Français

The Institute de Français is a French language school in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Rivera. A few years ago I attended a 4-week course there. It was excellent.

The school is set up to immerse student in the French language to the greatest degree possible (shy of holding them completely captive). It is what the Institute calls the ‘Total Approach’ and it is highly effective. They achieve immersion through various means:

  • A ‘French only’ policy is strictly enforced on campus. And most students also try to speak only French off campus in the evenings and on weekends.
  • Most students are there for a full 4-week course which is long enough to really get deeply into the language.
  • Instruction is in French only – even at the absolute beginner levels.
  • The French-only days are long – 8 1/2 hours.
  • The day includes breakfast and lunch. Students sit at tables of eight and each table includes a teacher who is there to ensure that the meal is accompanied by conversion – in French of course.
  • In the class-room the focus is very much on functional French that gets the student speaking as much as possible. Rather than focusing on grammar theory, the emphasis is on providing patterns that can be used in conversion.

For me the Institute was an inflection point. Prior to attending I had lived in Paris for 6 years but both my personal/social and work environments had been very much Anglophone. So while my French was sufficient to get me into the top class at the Institute, it was embarrassingly inadequate considering I’d already lived in France for an extended period.

It is not cheap – 5,800 € for the 4-week course. But the month I invested at Villefranche-sur-Mer changed everything. On returning to Paris I found myself speaking French comfortably – of course not perfectly – and without hesitation. The most important benefit of my time at the Institute was that it forced me to get over any hang-ups I had about making mistakes and embarrassing myself.

Here is a link to the Institute website.


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Is French hard to learn?

French is not that hard to learn

French has long been the most popular language learned by English speakers – including in Britain, Canada and the United States. Indeed, it has among the highest proportion of non-native speakers of all major languages.

French is among the easiest of languages for an English speaker to learn. The United States Foreign Service Institute ranks French in its second tier of easiest languages to learn for English speakers.

French is easy to learn because:

  1. There is a great deal of shared vocabulary thanks to William the Conqueror and the Norman conquest in 1066. Indeed half of English vocabulary has French/Latin roots.
  2. All French nouns have one of two genders – male or female. While at first this might seem daunting it quickly becomes natural with the gendered article (‘le’ or ‘la’) learnt as part of the noun. So rather than just chat (‘cat’) we memorize le chat (‘the cat’). And ‘la chat’ just sounds wrong.
  3. French grammar, though somewhat irregular, is not that challenging despite the much-feared subjunctive mood.
  4. Pronunciation can be challenging with quite a few sounds that aren’t found in English. But the French are so used to hearing their language spoken with a foreign accent that this is rarely a barrier to being understood.
  5. The two levels of politeness (the vous and tu forms) are quite straight forward even though getting comfortable with the situations in each should used can make an English speakers as bit nervous.
  6. Oral comprehension can present difficulties – that is understanding a native speaking talking. The French language has a lot of contractions and small particles which can be difficult to catch, especially when spoken quickly (and perhaps with a regional accent). For example ‘il y en a un‘ which means ‘there is one of them’.

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What is Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Qu'est-ce que c'est Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Qu’est-ce que c’est « Qu’est-ce que c’est » ?

The very commonly used French phrase Qu’est-ce que c’est ? is the contorted way in which the circumlocutory French ask ‘What is it?’.

Or as the French would say ‘What is that which it is?’.

Let’s break it down into its six contingent words and take a closer look:

(1.) Qu‘ + (2.) est + (3.) ce + (4.) que + (5.) c‘ + (6.) est

  1. Qu’ is an abbreviation of the interrogative pronoun que meaning ‘what’.
  2. est is a conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ – in this case ‘is’.
  3. ce is a demonstrative adjective meaning ‘it’ or ‘that’.
  4. que is the relative pronoun. also mean ‘that’ or ‘which’. Taken together ce que is an indefinite relative pronoun and means something like ‘that which’.
  5. c‘ is an abbreviation of ce which as we saw means ‘it’ or ‘that’.
  6. And also once again est is a conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ – in this case ‘is’.

So reassembling we have ‘what’ + ‘is’ + ‘it’ + ‘that which’ + ‘it’ + ‘is’.

And now we know what it is. Or to put it in a way the French might: Nous savons ce qu’est « Qu’est-ce que c’est » !

Ça y est !

Oh – and here is how it is pronounced:


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